Ed Wood: Not Actually The Worst Director in History

Stop calling Ed Wood "The Worst Director in History." His films have a unique energy and charm that should be appreciated.

Ed Wood is an easy target, a no-brainer cultural reference for people who’ve likely seen, at most, one or two of his films. Beginning with the 1980 publication of Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards, Wood was unquestionably and for time immemorial declared “The Worst Director of All Time,” and his 1959 picture Plan 9 From Outer Space the Worst Film Ever Made. People have been parroting the party line ever since.

Everybody says it, so it must be true. There’s no reason to even bother with watching the films anymore so long as we’ve been given the answer. You could stick Wood’s name on the credits for, say, Touch of Evil or Rashomon and people would still laugh at the films, because they stop paying attention at that simple Pavlovian trigger.

But it’s interesting to note that The Golden Turkey Awards was the sequel to The 50 Worst Films of All Time, a book in which neither Wood’s name nor any of his films are mentioned. (For the record, in that book the “worst film” title goes to Robot Monster, though I’d dispute that, too). Prior to Golden Turkey, no one had ever heard of Ed Wood, save for a few low budget directors like Del Tenney, who respected him for the most part. Wood’s films weren’t screened all that often, though they occasionally popped up on TV at two or three in the morning, given that most were never properly copyrighted. Even with that, few people paid any attention.

Since that sort-of rediscovery, though, Ed Wood has become a bit of a cottage industry, the center of a swirl of myths and fabrications and legends, some spread by people who know very little about him and others invented by people who worked with him. Those were not paper plates or pie tins in Plan 9 From Outer Space for instance, but store-bought plastic models. Near the end of his life, Bela Lugosi may have been addicted to morphine, but he was not shooting formaldehyde. There’s no denying that Wood was a transvestite, but the only time he directed a film in drag was during Glen or Glenda, when he was directing himself in Glenda scenes.

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I suppose there’s little use at this point in setting the record straight. Even Tim Burton’s all-star biopic, as much of a love letter and whitewashed fairy tale as it is (and it really is a wonderful, beautiful, funny movie), still pushes the idea that Wood was the Worst Director of All Time and Plan 9 From Outer Space the Worst Film.

Well, they weren’t. Okay, so maybe he wasn’t Welles or Kurosawa or David Lean, but I could name hundreds of directors (most still working today) who’ve been given $100 million budgets and turned in films that weren’t nearly as entertaining, fascinating, even thought-provoking as any of Ed Wood’s. Jesus christ, look at Titanic or most any teen vampire picture or some of that crap Jean-Luc Godard was pulling out of his ass in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  If you can watch an Ed Wood film and put it out of your head that it’s “An Ed Wood Film,” you might just see what I’m talking about. They really aren’t as bad as all that.

Glen or Glenda

Okay, so maybe 1953’s Glen or Glenda is not exactly the place to start making my point. As much of a defender of Ed Wood as I am, his attempt to both explain transvestitism and beg the public to be more understanding of men who wear women’s clothes is a grand, glorious, and absolutely confounding mess. A jumble of asides and flashbacks and stock footage and lectures and Bela Lugosi as God or something sitting in a hotel room talking about lord knows what, all of it collectively taking the form of a documentary. Or something. It’s as if Wood was trying to cram every thought he ever had on the subject into roughly 70 minutes.

The legend behind the film is pretty much true. In the early ‘50s Christine Jorgensen had a sex change operation and became a celebrity in the process. A low-budget producer wanted to make a quickie exploitation picture about her, but couldn’t get the rights. He still wanted to cash in, so decided to go ahead and make a more generic sex change movie. Wood, who at that time had made two abortive TV pilots, pitched himself as the obvious choice for director because, well, he was a transvestite and understood how such people think.

After Wood tossed Lugosi into the deal the producer bought it and Wood went home and wrote an autobiographical script centered around his life with girlfriend Dolores Fuller. Wood would play himself as Glen and Glenda, Fuller played his unwitting girlfriend Barbara, Lugosi was, well, whatever he was, and Lyle Talbot (a former Warners contract player who’d been on the skids ever since he helped found the Screen Actor’s Guild) plays a cop who discovers a transvestite suicide and decides to find out what this crossdressing business is all about.

(Fuller, who didn’t know Wood was a transvestite at the time, later said she was never shown the full script, only her lines and only when it was necessary. If you watch the film carefully, it’s easy to see how this worked. She was mighty pissed when she saw the finished picture.)

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Glen or Glenda is filled with so many odd ideas and sequences that it can sometimes feel like an art film. When Talbot discovers the body of the suicide, the dead man in the dress opens his eyes and recites his own suicide note. In a cutaway, Wood makes a baffling but clearly heartfelt argument against men’s hats, drawing some unexpected connections between fedoras and male pattern baldness. In another cutaway we get an interpretive dance sequence for reasons I still cannot fathom.

Audiences get a big laugh out of the shots of Glen in drag walking down the street, but apparently Wood’s makeup man was trying to make Glenda look too feminine when Wood stopped him. He wanted Glenda to look shabby and obvious and decidedly male. Well, that she does, for sure.

Then there’s the narration which permeates the film. In one of the film’s more memorable (and simplest) scenes, Glenda curls up in a comfy chair with a book as Wood’s narration explains:

“Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt or even the lounging outfit he has on and he’s the happiest individual in the world. He can work better, think better, even play better. He can be more of a credit to his community and his government, because he is happy.”

For all the jumping about, the first hour or so does try to focus on the story of Glen’s struggle to tell Barbara his dark secret before they get married. Then, obviously in a bid to keep the producer happy, the last 10 minutes or so are devoted to the story of Alan, the pseudo hermaphrodite and his decision to get a sex change. It’s still fairly autobiographical, but told in a much more straightforward documentary style. Sort of.

As silly-assed, sloppy, amateurish, and yes, funny as hell as Glen or Glenda is, it’s still a fairly daring picture for the period, one of the first times anyone tried to treat crossdressing seriously in psychological and social terms and not simply as a cheap visual gag (even if that’s how it turned out). As bumbling and head scratching as it is, the real kicker with Glen or Glenda is that it’s so oddly captivating. It’s a film that’s never, ever dull. You can’t stop watching. What’s he going to jump to next? Why is Lugosi God (or whatever he is)? What’s he talking about half the time? Who knows? Who cares?

“Bevare…Bevare…Bevare of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys. Puppy dog tails… and Big fat snails. Bevare…take care…bevare…”

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Jail Bait

Two years later Wood and his roommate Alex Gordon (who’d recently emigrated to Hollywood from England) formed a writing partnership and set to work on a crime melodrama called Jail Bait. The title was intentionally provocative, as they knew (well, Gordon knew anyway) it had nothing to do with underage girls. 

Gordon is too often left out of the Ed Wood story, but he played a major role. It’s easy to spot his influence on a couple of Wood’s early pictures, starting with Jail Bait because, well, they make sense and have coherent storylines. Jail Bait is a simple crime melodrama, but it’s not a bad one. It still has its quirks, though and Wood’s dialogue is still unmistakable.

A few Wood regulars start becoming regulars here. Lyle Talbot returns as another cop who’s partner is played by future international action hero Steve Reeves (a champion bodybuilder, but my god, no actor). Dolores Fuller returns as the female lead. Lugosi was supposed to play her father, a world-famous plastic surgeon, but was too sick at the time. The role instead went to Herbert Rollins. He’d been a major star in the silent era, but his career completely fizzled with the introduction of sound. He was dying of lung cancer when he made Jail Bait (you can hear him wheezing between lines) and died the night he finished shooting his final scenes.

And as the story goes, Don, the film’s lead, is played by Clancy Malone, a grocery store delivery boy who was dropping off a delivery at Wood’s place when he mentioned he was interested in becoming an actor. So Wood gave him the lead.

None of the actors are awful, even Malone, but the story they’ve been given is a simple one. Don, now in his early 20s, has fallen in with a low rent gangster named Vic (Johnny Robert Martin) and together they’ve pulled off a couple small-time heists. The cops are keeping their eyes on them, but haven’t been able to nab them on anything more than weapons possession.

Knowing full well who they’re dealing with and who Don’s father is, one of the cops asks, “How could a great man like that have such a jerk for a son?” 

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Don’s sister tries to talk some sense into him, but it’s no use. “That gun is jail bait!” Fuller says offscreen, thus justifying the film’s title. His father, however, one of those understanding, permissive types, feels it’s best to let Don make his own mistakes, convinced he’ll come back around soon enough.

Well, then Vic bullies Don into robbing a vaudeville theater. Before the robbery we get treated to a long minstrel routine. During the robbery and immediately afterward, Don panics and kills a security guard. Things pretty much go to hell after that. His father offers to cover for him briefly, but only on the promise that Don turn himself in to the cops. That turns out to be unnecessary and the film ends with a shocker twist that’s well…maybe not that much of a shocker if you’ve been paying attention.

Jail Bait is not an awful film, even when judged against the countless other crime melodramas of the mid-’50s. It’s not a great one, either. What’s fascinating about it is that it’s so thickly riddled with clichés and circular logic that they almost stop being clichés and take on a strange, otherworldly sense of their own.

When he first appears onscreen, returning home after a long day, the doctor takes a seat in the living room, asks his daughter to fix him a drink, and says, “You know, I had to perform a very difficult operation this morning. The victim of an automobile accident. Did you know that I needed to remodel that patient’s entire face? And it was strenuous and very…very complicated. Plastic surgery seems to me at times to be very…very complicated.”

Bride of the Monster

Yes, well, scratch away at that one for awhile. In the meantime, Wood began to establish a theme in Jail Bait that he would return to a few times throughout his career: the idea of good parents who, through simple patience and leniency end up creating seriously fucked up children. It was certainly hinted at more than once in Glen or Glenda and would appear again in the 1956 juvenile delinquency film The Violent Years (directed by William Morgan but featuring a Wood script). In that one a rich, spoiled girl whose parents seem nice but pay little attention to her forms a vicious girl gang with a penchant for robbing gas stations.

Tim Burton’s account of the filming of 1955’s Bride of the Monster was about half accurate. Wood’s regular cinematographer William Thompson was indeed color blind. Unless you’re making a color picture, is that really an issue? He was actually quite good. His sharp black and white, never better than it was here, was at times (is this blasphemy?) on a par with what you’d find in some of Val Lewton’s movies.

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Loretta King did indeed abruptly replace Dolores Fuller as Janet, the intrepid reporter and it may or may not have happened (depending on who’s telling the story) after Wood somehow got the mistaken idea that she had a lot of money she was willing to invest, but he and Dolores had already broken up by that time. Still, Fuller delivers her two or three lines with undisguised bitterness.

Tony McCoy, who plays Lt. Craig, was indeed the son of the primary investor, but was involved in the picture much earlier than Tim Burton would have us believe. And as the male hero, he wasn’t that bad. 

The giant octopus that plays such a pivotal role in the climax wasn’t broken. Not completely anyway. In earlier shots it’s clear at least a few of the mechanical tentacles were still functioning (as a trivia side note, Bride of the Monster’s makeup man was the same makeup man who worked on Citizen Kane, which is only one of a few Welles/Wood connections that have cropped up over the years). Once again Wood wrote the script with Gordon, and you can tell. It may well be the best film Wood ever made and Gordon had a lot to do with that.

For years, people had been whispering about a monster lurking around the old Willows place by the lake just outside of town. Janet’s sensationalistic newspaper stories about the monster weren’t helping things. Little did they know the old, supposedly abandoned mansion was occupied by Dr. Eric Vornoff (Lugosi, who was in bad shape but gives a surprisingly vibrant performance), his hulking mute assistant Lobo (Tor Johnson), and an octopus that hangs around the edge of the lake at night, snatching up the unwary.

Dr. Vornoff likes his privacy, which allows him to conduct his experiments in peace. Working in his basement lab (and if you’re not being a snot you might not notice that the “stone” walls are painted and the atomic ray gun is a photo enlarger) and using live subjects snatched up by the octopus, he’s hoping to create a “race of atomic supermen.” As he explains to one early victim moments before throwing the switch.        

“You will soon be as big as a giant, with the strength of 20 men. Or, like all the others, dead.”

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The cops (including Paul Marco, making the first of three appearances in Wood films as the bumbling and cowardly Kelton the Cop) start poking around but find nothing. Janet, after learning that Vornoff  bought the old Willows place shortly before the disappearances began, starts poking around too and unsurprisingly finds herself in a peck of trouble. And a strange Eastern European scientist, Prof. Strowski (George Becwar) shows up at police headquarters to explain that the monster they’re looking for might somehow be connected to the Loch Ness Monster.        

(In another cheap aside, during the shoot George Becwar complained to SAG after he wasn’t paid overtime for working an extra two hours one night. The production was shut down for a month as Wood tried to wrangle up the cash. Once shooting resumed, no one was very nice to Becwar.)

Strowski tracks  Vornoff down on his own and we get Vornoff’s back story in a beautiful (don’t laugh) monologue from Lugosi. As beautiful anyway as a monologue that includes the term “a race of atomic supermen” can be. As usual though he never knows how to treat house guests. Well, it all ends with lightning, a big fire, Lobo turning on the doctor, a police shootout, Lobo beating the holy living crap out of Lt. Chraig and an octopus. It’s all very exciting and surprisingly well staged.

All in all it’s a mad scientist movie with a little bit of everything thrown in, and despite the obvious budgetary constraints in places, it’s snappily-paced, it’s hugely entertaining and it looks great. Even if you aren’t willing to go that far, it at least holds together.   

There’s a long and complicated story about how the fight over the film’s original title, Bride of the Atom, inadvertently led to the creation of American International pictures, but that doesn’t matter here. What does matter is that after Bride of the Monster, Alex Gordon moved on to become one of the founding producers at AIP. Had he stuck with Wood, it’s likely Wood would be remembered today as a second-rate, low-budget filmmaker along the lines of Bert Gordon (no relation) or W. Lee Wilder. Without Gordon, Wood became a legend. Wood is, after all, best remembered and laughed at on account of two films Gordon had nothing to do with: Glen or Glenda and Wood’s next picture, Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Plan 9 From Outer Space

The myths, half-truths, and actual real truths surrounding the insane production, from the film’s origins to the backing received from a local Baptist church to Vampira refusing to speak any lines, run so fast and thick there’s little point in trying to hack through them all. Believe what you want and you’ll at least be close to what really happened.      

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After Bela Lugosi was released from the hospital where he’d been treated for his morphine addiction, Wood shot a couple of silent test reels for what appears to be two different films he had in mind. Then Lugosi died and the footage sat on the shelf until Wood concocted a brilliant scheme to make “Lugosi’s last movie.” The story he built around the footage, if you think about it squarely, wasn’t half bad. A little convoluted, maybe.        

After the US government refuses to acknowledge the existence of flying saucers and refuses to heed the aliens’ warnings, a group of aliens lands on Earth with a plan (“plan 9,” as it happens). They’re going to resurrect an army of the dead and march them on Washington in order to force the government to admit that flying saucers exist. Once that’s done, the aliens will again present their warning, namely that scientists need to stop developing the Solaranite Bomb. The Solaranite Bomb, see, is designed to ignite the very particles of sunlight and once that’s done the entire universe is doomed. But things don’t quite go as the aliens planned, thanks to those earthlings and their stupid minds. They’re stupid! Stupid!

Okay, so in a nutshell that’s the plot. Once Wood put that into dialogue, brought in his usual sideshow of actors (Tor Johnson, Lyle Talbot, Paul Marco, a couple pre-ops), together with newcomers like TV psychic Criswell and Lux soap radio pitchman Dudley Manlove and once he started building sets, well, the picture became a different animal.        

There’s been so much written about Plan 9 that there’s little point in saying anything more here. It’s easier to just watch the damned film. Yes, the sets are cheap, the dialogue is a little stilted and awkward and sometimes makes no sense: Wood keeps reusing that same shower curtain scene after scene; the chiropractor playing the resurrected Lugosi looks nothing like Lugosi; and giving Tor lines to speak was simply not a good idea; but in technical terms it’s still better than The Crawling Terror and Prince of Space, and it’s a hell of a lot more fun than something like the insufferable Silver Linings Playbook or several other recent Academy honorees. 

So there.

Night of the Ghouls

After it was completed, Plan 9 sat on the shelf for a few years before any distributor would touch it. In the meantime Wood went ahead and made Night of the Ghouls as a sort-of sequel to both Plan 9 and Bride of the Monster and was the final entry to both Wood’s sci-fi/horror trilogy and his Kelton the Cop trilogy. Its 1959 release marked one of the few times a sequel hit theaters before the original film. Today it’s among the most overlooked of the six more or less mainstream features Wood directed and not without reason. Yet in a strange way it works as a kind of summation of his films up to that point.        

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Tor Johnson returns as Lobo, Paul Marco shares top billing this time as Kelton, and John Carpenter (not that one) stars as the police captain. The fact that Kelton gets pushed more to the forefront hints that maybe the film would be playing for intentional laughs this time and who knows? That might have been the idea, anyway. As he did in Plan 9, Criswell introduces and narrates Night of the Ghouls, a story he says, in that inimitable overdramatic way of his, is about “The twilight people. Creatures to be pitied! Creatures to be despised!”

After the old Willows place burned to the ground at the end of Bride of the Monster, a new house was built in its place, this time occupied by a fake psychic who goes by the name Dr. Acula (and believe it or not no one catches on), played by professional sharpshooter Kenne Duncan. For the right price, Dr. Acula will raise your loved ones from the dead. It’s a process that takes a long time, though and costs an awful lot of money.   

Fake or not, it seems there are still some weird goings on in the area around the New Old Willows place. In what might be a nod back to Jail Bait and The Violent Years, Criswell dismisses the idea that juvenile delinquency is the most terrible crime of the age. The shenanigans of some rambunctious youths are nothing, after all, compared with, y’know, zombies. He has a point there, too, as illustrated when a bickering old couple driving past the New Old Willows place find themselves terrorized by ghosts or zombies or something. Pasty-faced people in nightgowns, anyway. When they report it to the police, Lt. Daniel Bradford (Wood regular Duke Moore), the department’s unofficial ghost chaser, grabs Kelton and the two drive out there to have a look-see and a chat with Dr. Acula. Along the way, the jittery Kelton drops references to both Bride of the Monster and Plan 9.        

Well, many slow things happen and we get the big reveal about an hour in. That may be part of the reason Night of the Ghouls is so often ignored. The story is coherent and holds together, the acting is fine, the dialogue isn’t utterly ridiculous, even the effects aren’t completely laughable. It’s just a mild horror film played for some weak laughs. Given that it’s an Ed Wood film, that makes it a failure.

The Sinister Urge

After dealing with mad scientists and monsters, aliens, zombies and ghosts in his trilogy, Wood opted to move away from science fiction and horror and move back into crime, but with a sad, prescient twist. In terms of style, 1960’s The Sinister Urge, generally considered Wood’s last legitimate film, is reminiscent of The Violent Years or Jail Bait, except that it’s a bit more sophisticated and a hell of a lot rougher.        

What begins as the story of a serial rapist/killer stabbing young women around LA turns into something more when the investigating officers (Kenne Duncan and Duke Moore again) discover that all the victims had been connected with a local porn ring they’d been trying to bring down for years. The operation (whose output is awfully mild by today’s standards) is run by the tough-as-nails Gloria Henderson (Jean Fontaine). She has a filmmaker, a photographer, some distributors and a lot of girls working for her.

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She brings in a lot of money and she needs to keep everyone in line if she wants to make some solid mob connections. To this end, we learn, she has no qualms about hiring a psychopath who, as luck would have it, is driven into a murderous frenzy every time he sees porn (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn The Sinister Urge had been a model for the sociologists and government types who spent the ‘70s and ‘80s trying to draw a connection between porn and violence).

For its time it was a pretty nasty film, again dealing with a taboo subject more bluntly than most other filmmakers would dare. There is one particularly sad scene, though, considering what happened to Wood’s career after this. Henderson’s in-house filmmaker (Carl Anthony) is watching some rushes in his office. A poster for Jail Bait is clearly visible on the wall behind him. As he watches the films, his disappointment is clear. Then he says, “I watch this slush and remember how I used to make good movies.”       

The Sinister Urge isn’t a bad picture at all. In fact it’s pretty good, even surprising and clever in parts. It was as if Wood had finally gotten a handle on how to make a real picture. Then the bottom fell out.   

Orgy of the Dead and Beyond…

After Sinister Urge he concentrated more on screenplays, and in 1965 he teamed up with A.C. Stevens. Beginning with Orgy of the Dead (an insane, almost artsy, nudie horror picture featuring an endless stream of zombie strippers) and continuing until Wood’s death in 1978, Stevens directed about a dozen Wood scripts ranging from drive-in fodder like The Fugitive Girls to grainy, hardcore porn (with a focus on the porn).  

In that 18 year stretch after Sinister Urge, Wood would only direct three more films, most existing in that gray area between soft and hardcore and at least one based on one of the pulp novels he was also writing at the time. He drank more, wore women’s clothes less and eventually died in North Hollywood, USA, at the age of 54. Today Ed Wood’s scripts and novels are still being picked up and produced and his films are being watched and discussed and written about.

So maybe that’s the final joke. People can chortle at Wood’s pictures all they want. The latest Star Trek or Batman or Superman reboot, the next Will Smith movie, the next five DeNiro comedies, yeah, yeah, yeah. 30 years from now no one will know and no one will care. But they’ll still be watching Plan 9 for whatever reason and they’ll still be having a good time.

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So I guess that means Ed Wood wins.